It’s mid-January 2016, and Ben Caplan is at a Mercedes dealership in Germany getting the brakes serviced on the rental vehicle that he and his band, The Casual Smokers, have been using for their tour. It’s no surprise that it’s due for a tune-up: since landing in Europe in mid-December, they’ve played a gig nearly every night, save a short break over the holidays – and there’s no end in sight.
After the European leg of the tour wraps, Caplan, whose girlfriend, Taryn Kawaja, is also a member of his band, heads directly to the United States for a month of shows. He’ll then go home to Halifax for a five-day break before carrying on to Quebec – all this after already playing 60 shows throughout North America in the two months immediately following release of his second album, Birds with Broken Wings, in September 2015.
“It’s about performing. The only way I know how to do it as my job is to play a show every day.”
But if he’s exhausted, Caplan, isn’t letting it show. “It’s what I do – it’s about performing,” he says simply. “The only way I know how to do it as my job is to play a show every day.”
Beloved for his enthusiasm and larger-than-life stage presence (a review in The Guardian recently described him as playing “the role of oversized ringmaster to the hilt”), not to mention his exuberant beard, Caplan is clearly at home before an audience.
Trained in theatre, he mindfully pushes the boundaries when he performs, working to straddle the line between the absurd and the authentic. “People want to connect and there is something about absurdity that lets people’s guard down,” he explains, “but then you have to do something real when it’s down.”
For Caplan, that’s where songwriting comes in. “That’s what I want people to connect with,” he says, explaining that while not every song is personal, even those he describes as “intellectual experiments” are about communicating ideas, no matter how theatrical the set-up.
While immensely confident onstage, Caplan admits it took him some time to embrace his voice as a songwriter. Acquiring his first guitar as a 13-year-old (“I played it incessantly!”), he later teamed up with childhood friend Joe Girard (who also contributed to the song “Deliver Me” on Birds with Broken Wings) in his hometown of Hamilton, ON, to form a folk duo. Girard wrote the words and Caplan stuck with melodies.
In time, however, he began working out his own lyrics. “I realized it was much more exciting to sing lyrics that I had written,” Caplan recalls. By the time he moved to Halifax to attend university, he had embraced songwriting wholeheartedly. Within two years he had written the bulk of the songs that make up his first album, In the Time of Great Remembering, which was released in 2011.
Caplan has since won a whole host of award nominations (and wins for Entertainer of the Year at the Nova Scotia Music Awards in 2012 and Rising Star Recording of the Year at the East Coast Music Awards in 2013); performed three times with Symphony Nova Scotia (he proposed to his now wife onstage at one of those shows); and played at the U.K’s Glastonbury Festival, an experience he describes as a career highlight. In September 2015, his song “40 days and 40 Nights,” from his current album, spent several weeks in the Top 10 of the CBC Radio 2 Top 20 chart.
On Birds with Broken Wings – produced by hip-hop klezmer singer-songwriter and producer Socalled (Josh Dolgin) – Caplan pays homage to his roots by referencing many of the melodies he heard growing up in Hamilton’s Jewish community. It’s music that he’s found resonates particularly well with enthusiastic European audiences, where his shows are selling out on a regular basis.
“There’s something about that old European folk sound that connects with people,” he says. “I think it is foreign and exotic to both European and Canadian audiences,” he explains, “but what’s exotic to the Europeans is also a little nostalgic.”
While he’s planning for a third, yet-to-be-written album (“it’s coming – it’s gotta be somewhere!” he says), Caplan is happy to be on the road, doing what he loves, learning as he goes and seeing where it takes him next. “For now, it’ll be more of this, really.”
Discography: Birds with Broken Wings (2015), Festivus Vol. 1 (EP, 2013), In The Time of Great Remembering (2011),
SOCAN member since 2007